Today between 4:30 and 5 PM, I will be participating in a Huffington Post Live discussion on the use of political profiling by the IRS. You can watch it live here. I will also be drawing connections between this issue and the question of racial profiling, a parallel I discussed in this post.
Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo has an interesting article arguing that conservatives are right to complain about the IRS’ use of political profiling, but argues that they should use the same reasoning to rethink their support for racial profiling in law enforcement. As he points out the IRS justification for political profiling is very similar to standard arguments for racial profiling in combatting terrorism and crime:
Pretend you work at the Internal Revenue Service… Every day, a big stack of files lands on your desk…. Each file represents a new application for a certain tax status—501(c)(4), a tax-exempt designation meant for “social welfare” organizations. Nonprofits with this status aren’t required to disclose the identity of their donors and they’re allowed to lobby legislative officials. The catch is that they must limit their political campaign activity….
It’s your job to decide which 501(c)(4) applications represent legitimate social-welfare organizations, and which ones are from groups trying to hide their campaign activities. What’s more, you’ve got to sort the good from the bad very quickly, as you’re being inundated with applications….
So what do you do? You look for a shortcut. Someone at your office notices that a lot of the applications for 501(c)(4) status are from groups that claim to be part of the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Aha! When you’re looking for signs of political activity, wouldn’t it make sense to search for criteria related to the largest new political movement of our times? So that’s what you do…
[T]here’s a name for the kind of shortcut that the IRS’s Cincinnati office used to pick out applications for greater scrutiny: “profiling.” By using superficial characteristics—groups’ names or mission statements—to determine whether they should be subject to deeper investigation, the IRS was acting like the TSA agent who pulls aside the guy in
Back in 2006, I pointed out that most liberals and conservatives take internally contradictory stances on affirmative action and racial profiling:
I have long been fascinated by the fact that most conservatives support racial and ethnic profiling for national security and law enforcement purposes, yet are categorically opposed to the use of racial or ethnic classifications for affirmative action. Most liberals, by contrast, take exactly the opposite view. Both ideologies oppose racial and ethnic classifications as a matter of principle in one area, yet defend them on pragmatic grounds in another….
[Conservatives] say… that ethnic profiling of airline passengers is justified because, on average, a young Middle Eastern Muslim male is more likely to be a terrorist than members of other groups. This, despite the fact that not all (or even most) Middle Eastern Muslims are terrorists, and there are of course some terrorists (Richard Reid, Tim McVeigh, etc.) who belong to other groups…..
Defenders of affirmative action, of course, make a very similar argument. On average, an African-American or Hispanic applicant to college is more likely to be a victim of racism and to suffer from the historical legacy of Jim Crow and slavery than a white applicant is. Thus, it makes sense to give preference to applicants from these groups, despite the fact that some of the beneficiaries will be people who haven’t suffered much from racism, and some of the members of the non-preferred group may themselves be disadvantaged. Defenders of AA also claim that the average black or Hispanic applicant contributes more to campus diversity than the average white one, although there are of course many individual exceptions to this rule.
What I wrote about conservative defenses of ethnic profiling of suspected terrorists applies equally to arguments for its use in ordinary law enforcement.